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Why Measuring Work Life Balance Doesn’t Go Far Enough

By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a recent study released by the Future of Children (a research collaboration between Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution), state programs intended to ease work/life balance challenges do not put undue strain on economies.

Taking a macro view of work/life issues, the study compares competitiveness and unemployment data from the International Labour Organization, the World Economic Forum, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other sources to determine if countries that offer safety net programs like paid parental leave or guaranteed time off for breast feeding were worse off economically.

And, it found, no – state programs designed to better facilitate work/life balance did not put extra stress on an economic system. The study said:

“…an examination of the most competitive economies as well as the economies with low unemployment rates makes clear that ensuring that all parents are available to care for their children’s healthy development does not preclude a country from being highly competitive economically.”

This is good news for people living in countries that guarantee these kinds of programs. The research shows that, even through the recession, these particular policies have not caused the most competitive economies to suffer. Perhaps this will encourage countries that do not have similar policies to adopt programs that ensure families have better health and wellness opportunities. But childcare is only a small part of the work/life challenges that employees face.

Work/life balance isn’t only about caretaking. It’s also about self-respect, mental and emotional health, physical health, productivity, and living the life employees want to live. It’s personal, which means work/life balance at the micro level is a much more difficult phenomenon to measure. And this has an impact on creating effective programs and policies at the state and corporate level. It’s personal. And that means work/life balance at the micro level is a much harder quality to measure.

Work/Life Measures

Last month Yamini Tandon, a consultant for Gallup, posted an article on the company’s blog about the challenges companies and countries face when trying to measure work/life balance. She wrote:

“[some] frustrations would not be picked up by conventional measures of wellbeing, because those measures don’t take into account the quality of people’s experiences, nor do they incorporate people’s own evaluations of their lives. Instead, those measures rely on factors like income and number of hours worked, under the assumption that these factors determine the quality of people’s lives.”

Simply measuring factors like hours spent the office, or time working during so-called off hours doesn’t provide a full picture of work/life balance, she argues. That’s why Gallup has developed new metrics to analyze the quality of a person’s life and how it is impacted by their work: Career, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community Wellbeing.

Tandon explains:

“Because Gallup’s wellbeing assessment measures these elements individually in addition to yielding an overall score, it is actionable: The assessment gives individuals, organizations, cities, and countries the ability to manage wellbeing by undertaking actions to improve it. If an individual has relatively low Social Wellbeing, for example, she would do well to focus her efforts on improving interpersonal relationships with friends and family.”

By dissecting work/life balance into key measures and finding out an individual’s feelings on each one, we can get a better sense of how work/life balance is working for each person and in a population at large. And this is important, Tandon warns – as global competition increases, work/life measures will become more important.

Work/Life Competition

First of all, considering how much work/life balance varies between individuals, think about how much it might vary between cultures. For example, Tandon notes, in countries like India and Pakistan, workers are motivated to work ten or twelve hour shifts as a norm. Compare that to other parts of the world where some countries, like France, mandate a 35-hour work week. As corporate workforces become more global and work and wellness expectations differ significantly across regions, work/life balance measures will have to become more nuanced.

Secondly, companies and job seekers will want to pay more attention to wellness measures in places where significant leave programs are not guaranteed by the state.

In these countries, companies that do provide generous leave options will excel in attracting and retaining top professionals who have the skills and track record to shop around for their employer of choice. When firms are driven to compete on benefits, employees win. Of course, this presumes that every employee has the ability to choose their employer. This is not usually the case, which is why these programs are so important.

Nevertheless, research shows that when workplaces enable better work/life balance, talent is happier, more productive, and more likely to stay. The ability to measure this more effectively will help companies attract and retain high performing talent.

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